Born to Host

'Iwas born to host," says Wine Cabana owner Keith Frantz. It's a calling with a simple enough first premise: "When somebody comes to your house, you make sure they have something to eat, a place to sit, and something to drink." That's for starters; the common courtesy of manners and etiquette forms the next course. "My dad took all us kids to fine-dining establishments when we were, like, eight years old," he recalls. "He taught us the napkins, the forks -- to get up when a woman gets up." And if something should somehow go wrong, "I deal with complaints the same way they deal with them at Disneyland -- 'What can I do to make you happy?'"

Small wonder, then, that Frantz wound up filling a position that's as close to Professional Host as anything out there: a hotel bartender in Hawaii. "I love to bartend. I was built to bartend. It's what I was put on this planet to do. You get someone there for 15 days, and they're in your bar every day." You become the unofficial concierge, the friendly face in a strange place, pouring your opening round for the night. "You get celebrities, rich people saying, 'Where would you go to dinner?'"

Answering that question is, in a roundabout way, what brought Frantz to where he is today. "All of these hotels have at least one fine-dining place. I used to send people from the Hyatt Regency to the Grill Room at the Ritz-Carlton." And the restaurant was appropriately grateful for the business. "You're taking care of the people who take care of you -- it's the service industry. So my girlfriend and I would have a $450 dinner and a $600 bottle of wine, and the bill would be something like $80. Or the manager would say, 'Comp that.' And then you tip them $300." That's how he started drinking the sorts of wines that any number of 27-year-olds only read about.

Eventually, he brought his newfound interest home from the restaurant. "On my way home, I'd have three or four hundred bucks from a shift, and I'd stop in a liquor store and buy a bottle. I built a little cellar in my condo, and pretty soon, I had something like 430 bottles," at least some of which now adorn the Wine Cabana's reserve list.

Frantz kept up the practice once he returned to the mainland -- only now, besides bartending at Petco Park and elsewhere, he was running a casino dealing and bartending school in Kearny Mesa. As part of his bottle hunts, he started making regular visits to Julian Velovan at the Wine Lover. "He'd always sell me a $200 bottle of wine," says Frantz. They must have showed well -- when Velovan migrated to the Wine Encounter, Frantz followed him there. Later still, when the peripatetic Velovan got a bartending/wine coordinator gig down at the Westgate, he gave Frantz a call -- the wine pro "needed to learn how to make some of the other drinks. After that, we just remained friends, and I told him, 'If I ever open a wine bar...'"

Frantz sold the bartending school in 2005. "When I sold the school, I was either going to open a sports bar or a wine bar, and I didn't want to have anything to do with my friends being wrecked on Jagermeister at two in the morning." In contrast, "Wine can complement food; it can complement your mood; it can complement a certain time." He remembers a three-liter of '99 Ridge Montebello, drunk with a childhood friend with whom he used to bike Montebello Road. "We saved the cork, wrote our names and the date on the cork. It was such a perfect time that we had together -- that's part of what wine is for me." Wine it was.

Velovan and Frantz started scouting locations and found what they were looking for on Congress Street in Old Town. "There's a renaissance going on down here. They're building an Extraordinary Desserts--type place across the street. They're going to knock over the building next door and build a Mercado like this one. I walked from here to a restaurant nearby and drew everything just the way it is now in here on the placemat. I still have it, dated 3/25/06." (Various nightmare dealings with the Powers That Be pushed his opening date to November; the bar just celebrated its one-year anniversary.)

This particular location, pre-renaissance, was a pottery shop and a sunglass shop, occupying one side of a three-sided courtyard. "I was thinking, 'Let's have wine in the title, but let's talk about Old Town. Wine Piazza, Wine Plaza, and then -- Wine Cabana.'" Cabana it was, and cabanas there are -- several inside, and several more outside, along the courtyard's opposite wall. Countertop-ringed fire pits fill the space between. "There are a lot of little intimate areas," says Frantz, noting the main bar, the smokers' bar facing the street, the interior rooms, and the curtained cabanas. "I designed everything, and when I built this place, people said, 'What are you doing?' I definitely had a vision; I wanted a place in Old Town that was tropical -- between San Diego and Cabo and Hawaii. I go to places like Baleen or the Catamaran, and I like those places. I didn't want downtown. I like to go downtown, but I wanted someplace more relaxed. I could never have gotten this vibe down there."

And response to the finished product seems to indicate that other people are okay with it, too. Tourists find it an oasis during their tromps around the neighborhood, but there's a solid local clientele as well, partly because Frantz keeps things busy. "I wanted there to always be something going on. There are always people coming to visit -- friends and family." What to do with guests? Check the calendar. Mondays are Monday Night Football and Industry Nights. Wednesdays get tastings (France vs. Italy, etc.), Tuesdays get chocolate, Sundays get Champagne Soirees and Dog Day Afternoon. "A girl came out on the patio, and she had her boxer out there, just sitting on the ground. I was, like, 'That's great. Let's have a day for that.' One Sunday a month, you bring your dog out here -- we cover the furniture, and we have kibble and stuff for them." Also popular: ugly-shirt contests and the end-of-month birthday bash. "If your birthday was in the month of November, you get cake, appetizers, and free champagne. Your friends get cake and appetizers."

The list itself is Velovan's baby and reflects his devotion to being both crowd-pleasing and wide-ranging (domestic Tempranillo, Greek Moschofilero, Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay). Flights sell well, and winetender Kevin says that the Taz Pinot Noir from Santa Maria is probably the best-selling wine in the house.

An expanded food menu offers Pupus, Bentos, Grinds, and Afters. What to drink with the homemade honey-roasted peanut butter with Granny Smith apple wedges? "I can give you the textbook answer, if that's what you want," says Frantz, smiling. "If we're going to Mr. A's or Donovan's, and you want to know what to have with the macadamia-encrusted tilapia, I'm going to tell you that you need the '61 Chenin Blanc." For the apples, "You're probably going to want a Sauvignon Blanc," says Frantz, "or even something sweeter -- a Riesling, maybe -- that will bring out the citrus in the apple. But I sat out here and drank a big fat Merlot with it, and it was just as good. When most people say, 'What should I drink?' I say, 'What do you like?' It's just like in bartending -- when you ask, 'What should I have?' the first thing a bartender says is, 'Do you like sweet or sour?'"

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